After the Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team lost the 2011 Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins, normally genial Canadians turned to riot and affray, trashing whole blocks of downtown Vancouver. As this happened during the Age of Omniscience, the whole event, captured on live television cameras, CCTV and mobiles, soon found itself under the careful review of everyone interested in this most un-Canadian behaviour.
As typical for any riot – especially a riot triggered by sport – the vast majority of the rioters were young men. Angered, fueled by a mix of testosterone and alcohol, they smashed the city, trashed police cars, wrecking everything in their path.
It was all recorded.
In the days following, as Vancouverites assessed the damage, cleaning their city while asking themselves ‘how this could have happened?’, video of particular events reached hyperdistribution: Do you know who this is, smashing that plate glass window? Who might be setting that police car alight?
The smarter rioters, in balaclavas and hoodies, could not be identified – immediately. But a logo on a distinctive tee shirt could give it all way. And some, swept up in the moment, neglected to disguise themselves, committing their crimes while the whole world watched. Such as Nathan Kotylak.
Nathan Kotylak you’ve been judged by Captain Vancouver in violation of all that was a promising career as a water polo star. When I googled his name, Nathan was a star with a future. In one fell swoop he destroyed that. I’ve seen Nathan’s phone number posted online and realised that even amongst your friend’s they are outing you for being a punk.
The blog publicshamingeternus shared Nathan’s image – as he tried to turn a Vancouver police car into a Molotov Cocktail – with tens of thousands of Vancouverites each looking for faces in the crowd, every one intent on trying to disaggregate the mob into individual actors, who could be held responsible for their activities. As each face resolved into focus, each was copied, shared, analyzed, and shared some more. One by one, these faces became names: the recognition of a friend or son or brother shocked a community which prided itself on its orderliness.
Kotylak, a rising sports star at his high school, found his name, address and home phone number distributed widely across Vancouver. Within hours, he and his family fled their home, fearing reprisals. The mob – hyperconnected and hyperdistributing everything they found abhorrent – closed in on a range of rioters, just as they did after the London riots in August 2011: identifying, naming and shaming – even threatening.
Hyperconnected, the power of the mob runs through our every act. At every moment we can invoke thousands or millions of others to stand beside us, now or in the nearly present, bearing witness or striking out as need and opportunity allow.
Yet the mob is not a pet on a leash, nor some force, like mains power, available upon demand. The mob has a mind of its own, far greater than any of ours, and if not exactly more intelligent, clearly separate from us: distant, gnomic, and unknowable. We can be part of the mob without knowing it, just as the mob has no sense of itself, no ego or center, no control or authority, just power and action. The mob houses no homunculus, hidden away, directing its activities.
Although centerless, the mob has a curious and quite sentimental emotional sensitivity. The mob hates cruelty to animals. When CCTV footage of Mary Bale dropping a cat into a dumpster (leaving the bin covered and the animal trapped) surfaced, the reaction from an outraged hyperconnected mob – which notably has an affinity for felines – forced Bale into police protection.
Where an incident contains an incitement, a mob will accrete around that incitement, sharing it amongst themselves, asking themselves what should be done to avenge this wrong. Each part of the mob offers up a suggestion of action, but only a few of these suggestions contain within themselves the excitement that carries them beyond a few and out to the whole. These may be the best and the wisest, or the ugliest and meanest – depending on the incitement. The buzz increases, and as the mob closes on a decision, knowing becomes doing.
This happens everywhere now; on a Tokyo subway and a Beijing Street and a Seoul metro station and a Vancouver riot scene. We are everywhere involved, directly, no longer merely watching but acting and reacting, whether present or distant, both now and later.
Call it the Age of Omnipotence.
We possess omnipotence not as individuals, but only in hyperconnectivity, bound to one another, and therefore unknowable, even unto ourselves. We become a greater thing in much the same way our cells become the greater organism that is us: No nerve cell knows of me, even if it is essential to my experience of myself. Power beyond knowing has literally become fact. We can not reach to it, we can not touch it, we can not even experience it except in the vague sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves, a single force operating with a hidden unity behind obvious multiplicity.
Yet it is not invisble, this hyperochlocracy, and it has us in its firm grip. Could we truly avoid being swept up in a hyperconnected mob, when all our relations have been swept up before us? Wouldn’t we simply see it as the perfectly reasonable course of action? We do not surrender our reason to hyperochlocracy; instead, it seduces us, tapping our weaknesses, our fears, our pretense and desire, making puppets of us, treating us like an army of hungry ghosts.
This is the new face of power, the new force which all other powers, however constituted, must now reckon with. It is not simple, nor singular, nor permanent, nor familiar. But it is of us, and we are not alien to it. Its ends are human ends, and though sentimental, it lacks pity: because none of us can be as cruel as all of us.